Remember Techland’s Dead Island? That overblown, technically incompetent zombie-slaying cartoonish nightmare? We really liked it! So, it’s sad to see Techland repeating similar mistakes in Dying Light, but stripping it of the personality and charm its elder brother somehow retained. Basically, Dying Light is a slicker Dead Island, but far more brown.
Propelling the colour brown to new levels of brown, Dying Light dares to tell the story of some prick who meets up with some other pricks which acts as a narrative vehicle for hitting zombies with sticks in a post-infection world. Or, rather, avoiding zombies while holding a stick in a post-infection world. Dying Light’s twist is a Mirror’s Edge-esque parkour mechanic added to its overarching first-person bash-a-thon with which you’ll leap about rooftops, playing it safe above the heads of the hordes.
We say hordes, but that’s a pretty kind word for the undead here. They’re more like a small gathering. You’re rarely heavily outnumbered by lumbering shits, but they aren’t exactly easy to beat down either. Like Dead Island, Dying Light relies on melee combat and weapon modification, from easily scavenged gas pipes and table legs to more elaborately crafted electrified sledgehammers and heavy axes. Trouble is, even the most carefully finished works of art fall apart shockingly quickly. The unsatisfying close combat becomes a roulette of lunges and flails which deplete stamina and degrade weaponry, ensuring your most successful method of survival is scarpering up a wall on to a roof because - and this is canon - zombies can’t look up.
So, in what way are these zombies even a threat if you’re running over their dumb, south-looking heads all the time? Cue Dying Light’s day/night cycle in which the undead become ever so angrier as the sun goes down allowing some sprinting bastards to dash upwards and hound you like chuggers on a high street. Some night-dwelling zombies have attributes stolen from every single other zombie game (one fires acidic spit, one explodes attracting hordes, one is tank-like in build) and start roaming the map looking for human scum to feast on. Dying Light’s moonlit dashes are one of the game’s high-points and there’s a real sense of urgency when the chimes from your watch signal night is falling and some of the more stubborn bastards are coming out to play. Alternatively, you can sneakily creep your way around, using a Survivor sense to locate more troublesome enemies on the map.
Skill points gained for traversing the environments are doubled at night, just like taxi fares, so skulking around under the cover of darkness is profitable for upping your agility and power set to unlock new abilities. This is especially worthwhile if you’re unseen by night-dwelling Volatiles (those angry, angry, angry zombie shits), or successfully evade their pursuits. Although, you pretty much bring all this on yourself, as travelling around at night is rarely necessary to the main campaign. The maps have scattered safe zones you can liberate from zombie threats and sleep in until night is over before continuing with your mission. But, on the odd occasion, when you’re caught short as darkness falls in the middle of a side quest, frantic dashes back to these havens deliver a required tension and edge to an otherwise casual experience. No fast-travelling or vehicles means you simply have to make your way on foot. Death penalties strip you of survivor bonuses and restart you at the nearest safe zone, but it’s too light a punishment to stamp any tension on the whole affair.
Annoyingly, most of the game’s moments of panic are due to poor mechanics. The sludgy and ineffective parkour that you oh-so rely on to make your escape is triggered by ‘looking’ at a ledge or a roof as your sole means of selecting it. It’s never pretty and reduces what could’ve been a smooth, rhythmic dash into a staccato, muddy jerk. Relying on avoiding conflict and the art of ‘running’ to get through missions is an admirable decision from Techland, but its execution is fundamentally flawed. Utilising parkour as a way of traversing the environments is a fantastic idea that just comes out badly. Besides, there’s no fun in beating down zombies in Dying Light anyway. Where Dead Island’s corpses threw up XP points in numbers as you scuppered their reanimated brains with a cricket bat, there’s no joy or necessity about it here, and rarely any threat. They just feel like warbling obstacles.
It’s clear Techland have taken cues from just about every other game ever, with heavy-handed salutes to Ubisoft stalwarts Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry, as well as more obvious homages to Dead Rising and Left 4 Dead. Sadly, all of this is delivered in a po-faced formulaic package that tries hard to cover so many bases that it loses any sense of identity. While a lot of care has gone into designing the (very brown) city, the characters and zombies themselves sit awkwardly on top. Its story of corrupt power structures and betrayal might as well have been written on the back of a yoghurt lid. Even its attempts to be dark - for example, there’s a series of morally questionable extortion missions - miss the mark with such fervour that their levels of pointlessness are matched only by the pasted, stoic expressions on the character models themselves.
While still buggy, it’s far more technically efficient than Dead Island ever was (apart from gun play that requires pressing R3 down to aim using sights). However, a lack of refinement in its vital parkour controls and melee combat show up its bones without the camouflage of an OTT game world to disguise the peculiarities as charming. Co-op also works slightly better than its spiritual predecessor as you play missions and campaigns alongside real-life buddies. An extra game mode that allows you to invade another player’s game as a suped-up mega-zombie is too unregulated and convoluted to be fun, lacking the quickfire turnaround of Left 4 Dead’s Versus round.
In spite of its faults, Dying Light isn’t terrible – in fact, it’s kind of fun and would be even more so with a little bit of personality. Its real problem is its smash ‘n’ grab tactic of pilfering ideas from virtually everything else, failing to find itself a comfortable sense of what Dying Light itself actually is. The Frankenstein collection of gameplay elements and design choices are delivered in such a dull manner that it never amounts to anything other than a nice, predictable and serviceable romp that you’ve played a million times before. If you enjoyed Dead Island, there’ll be no harm in giving this whirl for more of the same without any of the laughs. Just expect the level of charm to be heavily outweighed by the level of brown.
Dying Light is available now for PS4, XBO and PC.